Emma Hughes
3 minute read

See how LEED v4.1 credits advance circularity goals.

USGBC’s vision for materials and resources in the built environment comprises three strategies: reduce embodied carbon; protect human and ecological health; and advance the circular economy. While we focused on how LEED v4.1 addresses embodied carbon in a May article, these strategies are interdependent and require continuous optimization of products and material. How does the newest version of the rating system advance the circular economy?

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy captures the benefits of materials throughout their life span and seeks to keep materials in circulation as long as possible. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing and closed recycling loops. A circular economy is the opposite of a linear economy—the standard "take, make, dispose" model of production—and it represents an unprecedented opportunity to reduce costs, embodied carbon and strain on natural resources and ecosystems.

Sustainable choices for the whole life cycle

The Materials and Resources (MR) credit category in LEED advances a circular economy with credits that reward project teams who minimize and optimize the use of buildings, building products and materials throughout the project life cycle, from construction and demolition waste management planning to product selection and ongoing sustainable purchasing.

With LEED v4, USGBC introduced concepts into the rating system such as whole-building life cycle assessment and material ingredient reporting and optimization, which required project teams to quantify and understand the impacts of material use on human and ecological health. These new concepts complemented longtime LEED criteria for construction waste management and responsible sourcing of materials. In the newest version of the rating system, LEED v4.1, MR credit requirements continue to advance a circular economy.

For new construction and major renovation projects, MR prerequisites require all teams to reduce construction and demolition waste disposed of in landfills and incineration facilities by recovering, reusing and recycling materials and to provide infrastructure that supports storage and collection of recyclables during building occupancy.

Upstream waste reduction

With foundational strategies that minimize waste generation during construction and operation in place, to advance a circular economy, a LEED project team must look upstream in the supply chain and identify opportunities to eliminate waste before it arrives at the project site.

To incentivize source reduction and eliminate the use of unnecessary building materials, MR credit Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction rewards up to five points for building reuse, the renovation of an abandoned or blighted building, and the reuse or salvage of building materials from off-site or on-site. Restoring existing buildings or structures reduces energy and waste associated with demolition and construction, and the reuse or salvage of building materials can significantly reduce the amount of virgin materials used for construction.

After eliminating upstream waste, teams can earn additional points by selecting products that are third-party verified to meet circular economy principles: the Building Product Disclosure and Optimization (BPDO) credits reward products and materials that disclose material information and meet best-in-class sustainability criteria.

Materials selection and accountability

Environmental product declarations contribute to a circular economy by providing information that enables consumers to understand the environmental impacts of various products and make informed decisions about materials selection.

The BPDO–Sourcing of Raw Materials credit defines key components of circular manufacturing strategies, including extended producer responsibility, bio-based materials, sustainably harvested wood products, materials reuse and recycled content. The BPDO–Material Ingredients credit rewards teams for selecting products that fill in data gaps and minimize the use of hazardous substances.

Together, the LEED v4.1 credits represent a framework for advancing a closed-loop economy by increasing market demand for recycled content, healthier materials that can be reused or repurposed in an "infinite loop," and products that practice responsible sourcing and extraction of raw materials.

Through LEED v4.1 for Building Operations and Maintenance: Existing Buildings, existing buildings have an opportunity to advance the circular economy in their day-to-day operations by making intentional decisions related to purchasing, maintenance, waste diversion and recycling.

Zero waste goals

Also available to existing buildings projects is USGBC’s LEED Zero certification, which verifies the achievement of net zero carbon, net zero energy, net zero water, and/or net zero waste. LEED Zero recognizes market leadership in resource stewardship among LEED projects. The LEED Zero Waste certification is available to projects that have achieved TRUE certification at the Platinum level. TRUE is the most comprehensive zero waste certification available in the market, helping facilities to define, pursue and achieve their zero waste goals through project certification and a professional certificate program.

Advancing a circular economy requires a paradigm shift in the way products are designed and the way we produce and consume materials, necessitating collaboration among and integration of multiple stakeholder groups—all the way up the supply chain, at all stages of the building life cycle.

LEED v4.1 rating systems provide a framework to make informed decisions about material circularity, including choosing products and materials that are made from renewable or recycled feedstocks; that have been designed to enable reuse, repair and remanufacturing; and for which systems exist to capture and recover materials for as long as possible.

Learn more at Greenbuild

We continue to make updates for circularity in LEED, too. Join us at the Field Guide for Circularity workshop at Greenbuild, where leading industry experts and practitioners will explore proven approaches and strategies for prioritizing material health, transparency and circularity in building products selection and purchasing. This workshop is designed to equip architects, designers, specifiers, project managers, contractors and manufacturers with tools and frameworks that will enable smart decision making to realize material health and circularity goals at the building level.

Check out the workshop